Entertainment

Luke Combs: ‘No one can even agree to disagree’

LUke Combs drinks a beer. It’s around 10 a.m. on the country star’s sprawling, 140-acre estate in Tennessee, about an hour’s drive from Nashville. But hey, he probably earned it.

In just over five years, Combs has gone from virtual unknown to one of the biggest names in the country. Growing up in Asheville, a thriving arts center overlooked by Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the 32-year-old makes the kind of foot-stomping country — about heartbreak, hangovers, and hometowns — that sells out soccer stadiums in seconds . His debut single “Hurricane” was a lovesick anthem that introduced America to his powerful, whiskey voice and landed him a contract with Columbia’s Nashville imprint. It was blurry, he says, but so far he’s enjoying the ride.

“I didn’t know I was going to do something like that,” he tells me via video call from his self-proclaimed “man cave.” Behind him, the wall is adorned with framed sports jerseys and platinum plates; next door is the home he shares with his wife, Nicole, and their young son, Tex Lawrence Combs. Before music, Combs thought he might be a detective (“but I just don’t think I was smart enough, you know?”). Then, back home for the college summer vacation – bored from working at the local arcade – he found the guitar his parents had bought him when he was about 11 years old. “I took it because I had nothing else to do,” he says. “I had fun with it.”

That Combs still seems so grounded is part of his charm. Until a few years ago, he had ventured little further than the next three states. On the day his new album Grow upHe was released, he was out in the yard feeding the chickens like any other morning. Look up “Just Your Average Guy” in the dictionary and you’ll likely find an image of Combs with a baseball cap sewn onto his head.

“I’m glad that I was able to stay the same person in many ways,” he says in his gruff, matter-of-fact way [success makes] people treat you differently. It’s hard sometimes. But I’ve just always loved singing, and I’m lucky enough to be pretty decent at it.”

It took a while for the industry to recognize Combs’ down-to-earth appeal. Label execs threw him out of their offices because he wasn’t the muscular, self-tuned crooner they were after; he was rejected by The voice because he lacked any kind of sob story. “My parents were regular performers — my mom worked in the bank and my dad was a janitor,” he says, shrugging. Both his parents loved music and Combs grew up listening to the sounds of Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, Led Zeppelin and Garth Brooks.

His own sound swings and swaggers – he has a knack for hooks – but retains an unlawful bite that keeps him on the right side of the commercial. And then there’s his songwriting, which is closer to that of Chris Stapleton than that of bro-country overlords Florida Georgia Line. He has a sweet twist – “I used to wanna hit ’em like Chipper did / But I swing it just a little too slow,” he sings on “Used to Wish I Was” – that catches you off guard in the midst of Hammond organs and Electric Guitar Solos.

Grow up, his third album, is a career best that playfully balances his responsibilities as a new husband and father and his love of a good time. There are defiant singalongs like his 2019 hit, “Beer Never Broke My Heart,” in the form of the rollicking “Ain’t Far from It” and “Any Given Friday Night.” He is joined by Grammy-winning country queen Miranda Lambert for the bittersweet “Outrunning Your Memory.” Perhaps most hauntingly is “Middle of Somewhere,” on which Combs celebrates the “sweet and slow and simple” way of life he’s most comfortable with.

“People are just so proud to be from here,” he says. “You are in this place that most have probably never heard of. For example, when my friends came down from Nashville to write songs here, they said, ‘Man, he lives in the middle of nowhere.’ And they didn’t mean it in a derogatory way, but it gave me the idea. It’s a little ode to this place, which I think has really changed the way I think about a lot of things.” In the past, the snobbish attitude towards the South has frustrated him. “As a southerner, the joke is always we talk slow, that kind of thing,” he says. The same goes for country music: “Especially growing up, it was like, ‘Oh, I hear everything but Country.’ I never quite understood that.”

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Luke Combs performing live in 2018

(Getty for St. Jude)

In recent years, country music has come under scrutiny amid a tense political climate, and many artists still flatly refused to risk alienating their more conservative fans. Case in point: Taylor Swift, who made the leap from country to pop years ago, was still making international headlines when she spoke out against Trump in 2020. In a documentary released earlier this year, she was filmed speaking out about her fears of being “like the Dixie Chicks,” who were effectively chased out of Nashville in 2003 after condemning George W. Bush over the Iraq war.

Combs seemed aware of this when he insisted his 2021 standalone song “The Great Divide” shouldn’t be political. But that sparked a backlash from fellow artist Margo Price, who resurfaced photos of Combs holding a guitar with a Confederate flag sticker on it, implying he was a hypocrite. Shortly after, he apologized during a panel with country singer Maren Morris and music critic Ann Powers.

“As a younger man, that was an image that I associated with something else,” he said at the time. “As I’ve grown in my time as an artist — and the world has changed drastically over the past five to seven years — I’m now aware of how painful this image can be for someone else, no matter what I thought at the time,” Morris said that she also needed to educate herself about why the flag is problematic: “I’m from Texas … but I didn’t know what the rebel flag meant until I was probably 15 or 16 years old.”

Today, Combs still regrets his use of the flag image, but also seems a little upset that the song sparked such a tongue-in-cheek argument. During his apology last year, he spoke of his belief that “people can change” but only – it seemed to him – if there is understanding and patience on both sides. “Everything is so controversial and heated, and that always frustrated me a lot,” he says now. “I think what makes our country great is people’s ability to have their own opinions and disagree with them. Everyone is so hot for everything right now. And that adds to the tension that was going on.”

For him and his co-writer, Grammy-winning bluegrass musician Billy Strings, the song spoke to a moment in America when it seems like “nobody can even disagree.” Accompanied by warm, intricate picking on acoustic guitar, banjo, and mandolin, Combs sings, “We’re impacting matches on the TV / Setting fires on our phones / Bearing crosses we believe in dying on.” It created a climate in which everyone seems compelled to have the strongest opinion, to have the last word, when sometimes it might be better just to listen. “It definitely upset some people,” he says of the reaction to the song. “But it is what it is. I’ve never been afraid to stand up for what I think is right.”

“Growin’ Up” is out now

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/luke-combs-interview-growin-up-album-b2115272.html Luke Combs: ‘No one can even agree to disagree’

JOE HERNANDEZ

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